How to maximize Aeroplan miles

Sep 17, 2019

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Frequent-flyer programs have grown from small in-house programs to reward loyal customers into corporate behemoths, driving billions of dollars in annual revenue for their parent airlines. While we generally think of frequent-flyer programs as being run by the airlines they’re associated with, there’s one notable exception: Air Canada’s loyalty program, Aeroplan, has been independently run for the last several years. That’s all going to change in 2020 when Air Canada takes the reins again, after finalizing a deal to purchase Aeroplan earlier this year. Many award travelers are worried about how these changes will affect a valuable and popular loyalty program.

An Air Canada Airbus A330-300. (Photo courtesy of Air Canada)
An Airbus A330 taking off (Photo courtesy of Air Canada)

Upcoming changes to Aeroplan

While we don’t know what the exact award prices will be when Air Canada absorbs Aeroplan next year, we got a lot of clarity when Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s Vice President, Loyalty and E-commerce, spoke at the World Aviation Festival in London at the beginning of September. You can read TPG’s detailed coverage of his remarks, but here are the highlights:

  • Award charts are (mostly) here to stay: While the scourge of dynamic award pricing has been slowly creeping through North America, Nasr confirmed that Air Canada will continue to use a published award chart for many flights, including intercontinental routes and long-haul partner awards.
  • North America is going revenue-based: The notable exception is that award rates for flights within North America will be tied to the cash cost of the ticket, like we currently see with Southwest and JetBlue. These are the most commonly-redeemed awards in the program, and adopting a revenue-based system allows Air Canada to guarantee “last seat availability.” Again, while we don’t have hard numbers, Nasr indicated that there would be caps on award costs in many cases.
  • Air Canada recognizes the value of sweet spot awards: Speaking about sweet spot awards, Nasr dropped an interesting quote that should quell some fear about these upcoming changes: “If you have members engaged enough to find it that’s good. And knowing that those “special” rewards are available and publicized can improve the overall reputation of the program.”

These comments from Nasr come on the heels of a number of changes Aeroplan announced to its program back in July. Those earlier announcements were a bit of a mixed bag, with some good news and some bad.

Let’s start with the bad news: as of September 2019, Aeroplan has removed the ability to book Round-The-World (RTW) award tickets and multi-city tickets (i.e. those that include a stopover or open jaw). Aeroplan said that just .3% of redemptions utilized these features, but they’re becoming increasingly rare across the entire industry and it’s sad to see another option disappear.

Now on to the good news: Aeroplan is changing its award ticket fee structure, and introducing free cancellations and refunds within 24 hours of booking. Note that if you cancel a ticket that was booked by a phone agent, the $30 service fee will not be refunded. You can now also cancel and refund your ticket up to two hours before departure (for a fee), whereas previously award tickets could not be refunded within 21 days of departure. We’re also seeing refund fees drop to $125 CAD per ticket on the Aeroplan website and $30 for Aeroplan Diamond members. Super Elite 100K members won’t pay a refund fee at all, and can also change their itineraries and cancel award tickets for free.

How to earn Aeroplan miles

There are a number of ways to earn Aeroplan miles easily, though one option worth considering would be crediting revenue flights on Star Alliance airlines to Aeroplan. Especially with United’s shift to dynamic pricing, frequent travelers might find themselves getting a higher return by crediting to Aeroplan instead of to MileagePlus. United tickets accrue miles based on the distance of the flight and the fare class at the following rates:

Aeroplan also partners with a number of transferable points programs, letting you instantly top up your account when you’re ready to book an award. You can transfer points to Aeroplan at the following ratios:

  • American Express Membership Rewards: 1:1
  • Capital One Miles: 2:1.5
  • Marriott Bonvoy: 3:1 (with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred)

If you’re looking to build up your Aeroplan balance quickly, consider applying for one of these credit cards to take advantage of a valuable welcome bonus:

How to redeem Aeroplan miles

As it stands now, Aeroplan’s award chart is incredibly valuable both for short-haul economy flying or international premium cabin travel. We’ll start with trips within North America though, since that’s where the biggest changes are going to occur next year. If you’re able to, it might even make sense to start booking trips for next year to lock in the current rates.

Within North America

The chart below shows the round-trip award costs for Aeroplan awards within North America, with one-way flights available for half the cost.

The best sweet spot here is for the short-haul economy flights for only 7,500 miles each way. TPG values Aeroplan miles at 1.5 cents each, so you’re redeeming ~$112 worth of miles. Aeroplan lists the following routes as eligible for these short-haul awards, including a number from Toronto (YYZ) and Montreal (YUL) to the U.S.

While these flights are quite short they’re often incredibly expensive, such as these $600+ one-way flights from Montreal to Washington Dulles (IAD), which could be booked for only 7,500 Aeroplan miles assuming there was award availability.

Longer economy flights in North America price out at 12,500 miles each way which is pretty much the industry average, so the benefit to using Aeroplan is the flexible transfer options you have for earning points in the first place. Another option would be booking transcontinental business-class flights on United (especially routes like Newark to LAX that are operated by the shiny new 787-10s) since Aeroplan doesn’t charge any mileage premium for these longer routes.

International travel

Aeroplan really shines when it comes to award rates for long-haul travel, but there’s one important caveat that eats away at the value of the program: Aeroplan passes on fuel surcharges for most partner airlines, which can get quite egregious.

Lufthansa is one of the worst offenders, and while first-class award rates from the U.S. to Europe are tantalizingly cheap at 70,000 miles each way, the $833 in taxes eat away at the value of your “free” award.

You’d be better off picking an airline like Swiss, that keeps its taxes under $30:

Heading west, you can get a great deal flying EVA Air’s phenomenal business class to Taipei (TPE) and connecting on to anywhere in Asia for 75,000-77,500 miles. Note that award availability tends to be best on the Seattle (SEA) to Taipei route.

Aeroplan also deserves some credit for keeping some of the longest journeys reasonably priced. You can fly in business class from the U.S. to India and east, west and south Africa for the same 75,000 miles as if you were taking a considerably shorter flight to Japan. Even flights to Australia and New Zealand only cost 80,000 miles each way in business class.

Another reason that I love Aeroplan is that it offers an incredibly reliable search engine for Star Alliance award availability. Even if I’m booking through a different program like Avianca LifeMiles, I’ll often use Aeroplan to identify dates with award space. Aeroplan also does a great job (literally) highlighting mixed-cabin itineraries in a bright yellow box, so there’s no confusion about what class of service you’re actually booking.

Bottom line

Aeroplan is set to undergo some pretty significant changes next year when Air Canada reintegrates the currently independent program, but the good news is we have plenty of warning that changes are coming. If you’re worried about good-value premium-cabin awards disappearing you can book those now, by transferring miles in from Amex or Capital One.

While this might sound naive given the rash of severe and unannounced award chart devaluations in recent years, I’m confident that based on Mark Nasr’s comments, Air Canada understands the current value of Aeroplan to its customers, and aims to preserve a good amount of that value. The biggest test will be how they handle the revenue-based pricing for North American flights, but again, at least we’ve been given plenty of warning to prepare for that change.

Featured photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy

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